The Big Idea: Sara Miles

Where is the story of the world being told? It might be in the place you least expect: far away from news cameras and press releases. Sara Miles finds her work in those margins — she is the founder of the St. Gregory’s Food Pantry in San Francisco — but more than that finds the inspiration and ideas which inform her latest book on faith, Jesus Freak. Below, Miles goes into detail about looking where others don’t to see something new… and explains why doing so may be what we’re meant to do.


In the 1980s, I spent a lot of time writing about wars, mostly revolutions and counter-revolutions–– like the ones in El Salvador or the Philippines––and hanging out with soldiers, guerrillas, peasants and death squad members, as well as other journalists. My big idea then was really a technique. If I had to cover what everybody else thought of as the main event––an election, a massacre, a press conference by some crazy general––I’d focus on the stuff that was happening off to the side.

So I’d ignore the official announcements, the formal interviews with important people, and instead I’d chat with the lady mopping up in the back room of the Presidential Palace, or check out which movies were playing next to the Army headquarters, or spend an afternoon drinking Pepsi with guys stuck digging graves on the outskirt of town in the aftermath of a battle. I liked looking at things slant.

As a methodology, this approach kept me interested––even when I came back to the United States and started writing about electoral politics. The official version, prepared by handlers and delivered by hacks, was always just unspeakably dull. The dutiful Q&A was mostly an opportunity to be lied to. But some really funny things happened when nobody was paying attention. (Ask me about the pool party in Silicon Valley where Tipper Gore played drums with an aging Grateful Dead cover band.)

And this approach to writing remained useful when I had a totally unexpected mid-life conversion to Christianity and wrote two books about faith, including my latest, Jesus Freak. In fact, the methodology became an idea.

Because it turns out that God is very much interested in the margins: in the unlikely, ridiculous, and outcast. It turns out that the center of power––military, political or religious––is actually not where most change takes place. And it turns out that Christianity is all about the unexpected.

Think about the prophets with their mad faith the mountains will be flattened and the valleys raised up; think about Mary, with her conviction that the poor will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. Consider the impossible idea of an almighty God who chooses, of all possibilities, to be born to a shameful unmarried teenage mother in a barn; who scandalizes politicians, priests and his own family; and who spends his time on Earth hanging out with crooked cops, whores, and the dirtiest, least attractive foreigners around. Imagine a God who winds up as a despised, tortured criminal, condemned by religious authorities and executed by the state.

“Look away” is a big idea, if one embraced more by fools and losers than by the smart and powerful of our world. But my experience is that the more I look away from the way things are supposed to be, the more I get to see.


Jesus Freak: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Jesus Freak. Visit Miles’ food bank.

11 Comments on “The Big Idea: Sara Miles”

  1. Interesting. IMHO, despite some of the obvious contratictions found in Christianity, the true goal is compassian. Compassion means you can’t look away because you see it all. But that kind of compassion is pretty darn hard to achieve. I’m not there yet.

  2. Ask me about the pool party in Silicon Valley where Tipper Gore played drums with an aging Grateful Dead cover band.

    Please, consider yourself asked!

  3. …and then, on top of that, think about the kind of screwed-up people Jesus called to follow him. Peter was a thick-headed small businessman with an inferiority complex. John was probably a naive kid who didn’t know any better. Matthew was a bureaucrat on the take. A disturbing number of the women who followed Jesus were either whores or adulterers. And then there was Paul, an arrogant jerk-ass politician who persecuted a religious minority for kicks. And Jesus welcomed them all, trusted them all, forgave them all. That is huge.

    I’d submit that the biggest, most radical idea of them all is that God Himself really does love each of us, regardless of what we’ve done to others or ourselves.

    Oh, and this book just went on my Amazon wishlist. The “short” list.

  4. This sounds like a beautiful book, I am saddened that it hasnt gotten more comments. I will tell you the post has gotten you at least one sale. I look forward to reading it and sharing it.

  5. Thanks for the interview, this looks like a book worth reading, though most of the book featured on The Big Idea usually do. I can’t thank you enough for all the good authors you’ve introdced to me here.

    So many books so little time.

  6. My favorite part of this book was when Miles and the pastor of her church cooked for San Francisco’s trendy Mission Street Food event, squeezing preparation of a four-course meal for over 100 people into a maze-like kitchen that was like several barely-connected closets. It’s like guerrilla cooking.

    Also, it should be noted there’s a lot of humor in this book.

  7. The statement on power is certainly true. Whoever is at the top of power has zero motivation for the conditions that brought that about to change. Whatever values that society or even a small group holds that led them to choose or at least not kill the guy in power are certainly not going to be challenged by the guy in power.

    St. Augustine had a lot to say about Christianity’s incompatibility with political power.

  8. This reminds me of a bumper sticker on a pickup at a church-run BBQ in east Texas that I used to visit (to eat BBQ, not attend the church): “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? We bleed the blood at ….” – or something to that effect.

    Looks like the author is on her way to a conviction…

  9. I’m very surprised to see this on Big Idea and also very sold.

    Has Ms. Miles, if she’s still around, happened to read any of Shane Claiborne’s stuff? I sense a definite resonance between the way she describes the gospel and the way he does…

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